Preserving and Updating a Historical Home 

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Owning a home with a history can be an exciting adventure. That said, it also poses certain unique challenges – and could involve more time and work than you bargained for. So, if owning a historical home is something you’re thinking about, we thought you’d appreciate a little guidance on how to get your new “old” place modernized and livable while maintaining and preserving its charm and authenticity.  

Understand What “Historical” Means 

Just because a home is old doesn’t mean it’s “historic.” For starters, historic homes are identified and then monitored by the National Park Service. They are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

With some exceptions, to be accepted as a historic property, the home needs to be at least 50 years old and  

  • Be associated with historical events 
  • Have a connection to the lives of significant historical figures  
  • Have distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, be the work of a master, or possesses high artistic value  
  • Will —or will be likely to—provide important historical insights or information 

Decide If It’s Really Right for You 

Sure, it’s cool that George Washington may have slept there, but will you want to? Think very carefully about whether this commitment is in tune with your lifestyle and your budget.  

When you own a historical home there will be a constant need for upkeep and repairs, so be sure you’re in a financial position to maintain and restore the property. Remember you may need to replace the roof and plumbing or have major electrical work done. There’s also the problem of termites, wood rot and other things to consider, especially in homes that haven’t been well taken care of. 

Don’t Start Without Permission  

Not all renovations can be done. You must adhere to certain rules and you may not be able to make the changes, renovations or alterations without special permits. To begin with, you’ll need to apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) from your local preservation board to ensure the proposed work is compatible with the historic nature of your home. Some typical no-no’s include adding extra square footage or stories; replacing the windows, shutters or roofs using a material different from their original architectural style; and putting in landscaping that may not match the property’s character. 

They’ll want to see drawings, specifications, photos of existing conditions, and product samples. Approval can typically take six weeks or longer, so plan ahead. 

Choose Your Projects Wisely 

You want to strike a balance between preserving the home’s character and enjoying amenities that are in line with 21st century living. Aim to complement the home’s original style. For example, choose hardwood floors instead of wall-to-wall carpet, update lighting fixtures to period-appropriate styles, or add built-in shelving made of wood to match existing trims. Depending on the home’s condition, you may need to refinish hardwood floors, repair or replace damaged woodwork and repoint brick or stone.  

Making eco-friendly upgrades in a historical home also requires extra care and approval. Things like improving insulation, adding alternative energy systems or reusing materials can be great for efficiency and the environment but may affect the structure or appearance if not done properly. Whenever possible, take photos of architectural details, record room dimensions and note the materials used. This provides a reference for the preservation board and helps ensure changes are reversible in the future. 

Make Sure Interior Work is Undo-able 

It’s important to reconfigure interior spaces in such a way that original room dimensions and functions can be restored in the future. You can widen doorways and add skylights but it’s even simpler just to use furniture, folding screens and curtains to break up large spaces.  

In a historical home, bathrooms and kitchens often need the most work. It’s best to choose bathroom fixtures that don’t require moving pipes and select appliances that fit the existing space. Adding a few smart home elements, like smart thermostats and security systems will increase safety, efficiency, and convenience without changing the home’s historic character. Even larger upgrades like central heating air conditioning are possible if they’re done discreetly. Whenever possible, install systems where they won’t be visible, like in the attic or basement. 

Compromise when needed. If some original features are unusable or unsafe, find a middle ground. For example, you could convert a wood-burning fireplace to gas to keep the look but improve efficiency. 

Be Especially Careful with Any Outside Work 

Since it’s how most people will see our home, preservationists can be particularly sensitive about exterior modifications. Avoid anything that destroys historic materials or significantly alters your home’s appearance and character—for example replacing wood siding or windows with vinyl or aluminum. Remodeled porches or additions that change the profile of your house can potentially lower its value. To get approval from a preservation board, they’ll need to go well with the existing structure in size, materials and style. Hint: You’ll stand a better chance of being greenlighted if these types of upgrades are at the back of the house. 

For landscaping, use plants and decorations that suit the period of your house. This doesn’t mean you’re stuck with wisteria, heliotrope and scuppernong arbors. A blend of traditional and modern elements can work but go for an authentic look. Do research on your home’s architectural style and era to guide updates and renovations. Consult local historic guidelines and see if you can find out how the exterior was painted in your home’s heyday. Make choices that honor the past. 

Is a Move in the Works?  

Why not let the professionals at United Van Lines take care of the heavy lifting? United’s full-service moving packages provide flexibility to mix and match the services you want and need.

Get a quote from United Van Lines today.     

Do you need help settling in? Check out our other blogs for moving tips and packing advice, as well as city guides and a wealth of other helpful, time-saving information. 

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